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Chapter Twenty-Four

The Radisha waited impatiently while Smoke bustled around making sure his spells were proof against eavesdroppers. The Prahbrindrah Drah lounged in a chair, looking indolent and unconcerned. But he spoke first when the wizard signalled satisfaction with his precautions. More bad news, Sis?

Bad? I dont know. Not pleasant. Dejagore was a disaster. Though experts tell me it hurt the Shadowmasters so badly they cant bother us this year. The woman you lust after did survive, though.

The Prahbrindrah grinned. Is that the good news or the bad?

Subject to interpretation. For once, though, I think Smoke might be right.

Ah?

She insists the defeat neither destroyed the Black Company nor terminated our contract. She gave me a requisition for more men, equipment, and materials.

Shes serious?

Deadly. She reminded me of the Companys history and what becomes of those who renege on contracts.

The Prahbrindrah chuckled. Bold wench. All by herself?

Smoke squeaked something.

The Radisha said, Shes already recruited a force two thousand strong. Shes training them. Shes dangerous, dear. Youd better take her seriously.

Smoke squeaked again, apparently unable to articulate what he wanted to say.

Yes. She killed Jahamaraj Jah. Jah tried giving her some trouble. Poof! She made him disappear.

The prince took a deep breath, blew it out between puffed cheeks. Cant fault her taste. But thats no way to make friends with priests.

Smoke gobbled again.

The Radisha said, She doesnt intend to try. She got Blade to defect. Hes her number two man, now. You know his attitude. Dammit, Smoke! One thing at a time.

Swan and Mather?

They stuck. I think. But Swan is taken with her, too. I really dont know what you see in her.

The Prahbrindrah chuckled. Shes exotic. And gorgeous. Where are they now?

I left them in charge. Supposedly. Its meaningless. She considers herself the Captain and free to do whatever she pleases. With those two there Ill have eyes on the scene. They can keep us informed. All right, Smoke. All right.

Whats he lathered about?

He thinks shes made an alliance with the Stranglers.

The Stranglers?

Kina worshippers. Like Smokes been whining all along.

Oh.

First time she visited me she brought two of them with her. Or men who appeared to be Stranglers.

Smoke managed a clear statement. She carried a strangling cloth herself. I believe she slew Jah personally. I believe she disposed of his corpse in a Deceivers rite.

Let me think. The prince steepled his fingers before his lips. Finally, he asked, Were they men shed recruited? Or did she make an alliance with the whole cult?

Smoke gobbled. The Radisha contradicted him. I dont know. Who knows how that cult works?

Its not monolithic.

Smoke said, She carried a rumel herself. She posed as Kina during the fight with the Shadowmasters cavalry.

The Radisha had to explain that.

The prince observed, So we assume the worst? No matter how unlikely?

Even if she has access to only a few Stranglers, dear, shes acquired an unholy power. They have no fear of death. If theyre told to kill, theyll kill. Disregarding any cost to themselves. And we have no way of knowing who might be one of them.

The Year of the Skulls, Smoke piped. Its coming.

Lets dont get carried away. You talked to her, Sis. What does she want?

To continue the war. To fulfill the Black Companys commission, then see us meet our end of the agreement.

Then were in no immediate danger. Why not let her have her head?

Kill her now, Smoke said. Before she grows any stronger. Destroy her! Or she will destroy Taglios.

He seems to be overreacting. Dont you think, Sis?

Im not so sure anymore.

But...

You didnt talk to her, her with all the confidence of a tidal wave. Shes turned damned scary.

And the Shadowmasters? Wholl handle them?

We have a year.

You think we could build an army?

I dont know. I think we made a lethal mistake dealing with the Black Company the way we did. Quiet, Smoke. We wove webs of deception. That will come back on us because were in too deep to retreat. Swan, Blade, and Mather were convinced we were treacherous in our promises. Im sure Blade shared his opinions with the woman.

Well step carefully, then. The Prahbrindrah reflected. But right now I dont see the threat. If she wants to get the Shadowmasters, I say let her go after them.

Smoke had a fit. He ranted. He cursed. He issued dire prophecies. Every sentence included the words, The Year of the Skulls.

His histrionics were so craven they drove the Radisha toward her brothers position.

Brother and sister left him to his humors. As they moved toward their part of the palace, the Prahbrindrah asked, Whats gotten into him? Hes lost his nerve completely.

He never had much.

No. But hes gone from a mouse to a jellyfish. First it was fear of getting found out by the Shadowmasters. Now its the Stranglers.

They scare me.

The prince snorted. We have more power than you suspect, Sis. We have the power to manipulate three priesthoods.

The Radisha sneered. She knew what that was worth. So did Jahamaraj Jah, now.


Chapter Twenty-Three | Dreams of Steel | Chapter Twenty-Five







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